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COLUMN ONE : The Man Who May Save Detroit : Dennis Archer is bringing hope to a long-suffering city. Part of a new generation of moderate black mayors, he is trying to boost business and heal wounds left by bitter racial politics.

February 07, 1995|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 61,000 houses were lost in the 1980s and few new ones built. The tax rate is seven times higher than the state average. Yet residents complain of crime, poor garbage pickup and unfilled potholes. Detroit has run budget deficits in 23 of the last 30 years.

"Unless the tax burden is reduced, nothing fundamental will change," said David Littmann, chief economist for Comerica Bank. "Everything else is just flag waving. People and capital will continue to flow out of the city."

Given this bleak backdrop, rebuilding Detroit would appear an impossible mission. But Archer sees solutions.

At his inaugural, he planted the seeds of renewal. While often a stiff speaker, he lit an emotional spark that brought the crowd to its feet: "For this great crusade to redeem our city to succeed, everybody must pitch in," he said. "Sweep the sidewalk in front of your house! Clean the rubbish from the storm sewer on your street! Pick up the broken glass in your alley! Get a grip on your life and the lives of your children!"

Since then Archer has impressed everyone with his energetic pace. A daily jogger, he works 16-hour days. He seems to be everywhere. He answers his own mail.

Archer wasted little time fulfilling some campaign pledges. He moved 300 police officers from behind desks to the streets. Garbage pickup time was reduced from 14 to 10 days. Funds were found for street repairs.

Although he adopted a $55-million budget shortfall, Archer hopes to balance it without deficit reduction bonds--a financial gimmick used in the past. He predicts a small surplus this year, which could lower borrowing costs.

He immediately reached out to Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, long regarded by black Detroit as a racial antagonist. While Patterson never met one-on-one with Young, he meets regularly with Archer.

"He has reached across Eight Mile Road with a hand of friendship," said Patterson, a former prosecutor.

The new chumminess with the suburbs allowed Archer to restart discussions of creating a regional transportation authority by merging the money-losing city and suburban bus systems.

The mayor also displayed a nonpartisan streak. To the dismay of state Democratic leaders, Archer last year endorsed Republican Gov. John Engler's school reform initiative to partly replace a cut in the property tax with an increased sales tax.

Make no mistake, Archer is a Democrat and strong backer of President Clinton. He is a regular at the White House, thanks to his friendship with Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he met when active in the American Bar Assn.

The close ties to the Clintons have borne fruit. In December, Detroit won designation as a federal empowerment zone. The city was granted $100 million over 10 years for job training, housing and business creation programs in a poverty-ridden 18-square-mile area near downtown.

Businesses are eligible for $200 million in tax credits for employing residents in the zone. More important, corporations pledged $1.9 billion for redevelopment projects in the district.

Still many in Detroit are skeptical. After all, the city has received more than $4 billion in federal grants since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty about 30 years ago, but the tide of decline has not turned.

Even well-intentioned efforts by wealthy private interests have not helped much. In the 1970s, Henry Ford II built Renaissance Center to serve as a magnet for downtown redevelopment. But Ford and his backers lost millions on the hotel, retail and office project, while doing little to spur development.

Community and corporate officials agree that dollars alone cannot revive Detroit. Rather, they see initiatives to improve education and to curb crime, drug use and chronic joblessness as the key building blocks.

Others fear that federal grants will become a narcotic. Conservatives say Archer is avoiding tough steps needed to restore the city's fiscal soundness. They advocate privatizing assets and services, a policy Archer has resisted.

There are also traditional political divisions in Detroit that may hamper progress. For instance, community and labor groups have a deep distrust of corporate interests. "If the economic power structure decides to come back to Detroit, it will be for their own benefit," said Karen McLeod, head of the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corp., a grass-roots group. "We hope Detroit doesn't give away the store."

Such sentiments present a political challenge to Archer, whose opponents paint him as a tool of rich suburban interests. Although he won 57% of the vote against a Young-backed candidate, he won most of the white vote and split the black vote, drawing best among the better-educated and affluent.

"He is aligned with the business community and suburbs--those that helped tear down the city for 20 years," said Llenda Jackson-Leslie, who writes a local political newsletter.

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